Thursday, May 11, 2017

Guest Review: Manchester by the Sea (2016)

by Koshcat

I recently watched Manchester by the Sea, which won the award for Best Screenplay, starring Casey Affleck, which he won a Best Actor Academy Award. It was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan who also wrote Gangs of New York.

The plot is fairly straight forward. (Spoiler Alerts) Lee Chandler (Affleck) has experienced a horrible tragedy losing his family. He is more than depressed and has completely checked out of life. He now works as a janitor for minimum wage and living quarters which is a small, one-room, basement apartment in Boston. The only time he feels anything is when he drinks too much and then picks unnecessary fights with strangers. Prior to this he was life-loving, loved his wife and kids, and spent glorious times with his brother, Joe, and nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), on their fishing boat. Since the tragedy, he has cut off just about everything and everyone from his previous life. The only tether is to his brother, Joe, who won’t allow Lee to totally cut him off.
His brother has been diagnosed with a heart condition where he is occasionally hospitalized and, when that happens, Lee will return to temporarily take care of Patrick. Patrick’s mother is an alcoholic and unreliable as a parent. The movie starts with Lee getting a call that his brother, Joe, is in the hospital with a myocardial infarction. He quickly leaves to see his brother but it takes him about 90 minutes to get from his home to the hospital. Unfortunately, he doesn’t arrive in time and his brother has died. It is now his responsibility to deal with his brother’s estate and discovers that his brother has made him Patrick’s guardian.

When Lee had left town, Patrick was a young boy. Now he is a 16 and firmly entrenched in the Manchester community with multiple friends and activities. His dream is to take over his dad’s boat. Lee has trouble with the responsibility thrust upon him but more importantly he struggles with the pain and memories of his past, told through flashbacks. Patrick refuses to leave Manchester and move to Boston to live with his uncle. Patrick is also in contact with his estranged mother, who has dried out, and arranges a meeting with her. However, it doesn’t go well.
Lee is trying to find a way to stay in Manchester. It was his mistake that led to his children’s death. While many, including his ex-wife and mother of his children, have forgiven him, there are others, including himself, who cannot. In the end, he has found a way to allow Patrick to stay in Manchester. Lee can’t move back but has found a job much closer and is looking for an apartment with an extra bedroom so Patrick can visit. The end shows Lee and Patrick on now his boat fishing much like they did when Patrick was a boy.

I thought this movie was very well written, directed, shot, and acted. It is not an uplifting story but more similar to the movie Ordinary People. While the ending doesn’t have some incredible redemption or uplifting message, it does give just a glimmer of hope. Lee is heart-broken and in pain. Everyone he has loved has either left or been taken from him. He loved Patrick as a son but fears more pain if he allows himself to get too close. Why should he? He will just suffer more pain and it is easier to be numb. Dealing with numb people is very frustrating because you feel like just shaking them really hard with a couple of good slaps to wake them from their stupor. However, it is a very effective defense mechanism. What makes this movie uplifting is Lee is going to try. It isn’t much but it is a sliver of an opening. He tells Patrick that he can’t move back. That is different from won’t. He wants to be there for Patrick but it is too painful. However, he wants to be in Patrick’s life. Initially, Patrick doesn’t understand primarily because he is self-centered teenager but at the end he matures a little and accepts what Lee will give him. More than accepts-he embraces it. This is growth, maturity, and reality. Healing from a tragedy like they have endured is in small steps. And as each small step is met with a positive outcome, it makes it easier to make the next one. Also, if the small step doesn’t work it is small enough that you can try again. Patrick is forced to grow up too fast but has people in his life who want to help and support him. Lee made sure the foundations are in place. Patrick’s wants are egocentric but not unreasonable. Lee cannot take on the responsibility and possible pain of being Patrick’s father. However, he can be his friend and eventually perhaps his uncle again.
Reading reviews on Amazon, people are all over the place on how they felt about the movie. A third thought is was one of the best movies ever and a third thought is was one of the worst. If you liked movies such as Ordinary People, you will like this movie. I do agree with one reviewer who mentioned that you have to have the right frame of mind to watch it. He had watched it twice and hated it the first time. The second time he was more open about the movie and loved it. There have been articles written as to why some people like movies that make them feel sad and it has to do with being compassionate. Movies like these seem to make people feel more compassionate about others around them who are in pain. It is thought that this compassion helps make a stronger sense of society by bringing us closer to one another.

I haven’t seen the other movies where actors were also up for an award, but Casey does a great job going back and forth between the two different lives. Personally, I think Casey is a better actor than his brother and he continues to improve. In addition, he generally favors smaller, more intimate movies rather than big block busters. This may have to do with personality differences between the two brothers. Before Matt Damon went off the deep end, he gave an interesting interview. He stated that after he and Ben became famous, Matt had trouble dealing with the fame. He married a non-celebrity woman and they have 3 children. They tend to keep their private life out of the lime-light. According to Matt, Ben is just the opposite. He thrives in the public eye and doesn’t seem to let negative press about his private life bother him. We may be trying to judge Casey against his brother, which probably isn’t fair to either.
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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Film Friday: Sausage Party (2016)

This is going to be short. That is all this movie deserves. I was looking forward to this one. The commercials were brilliant at making this look like a clever and funny film. It’s not.

The idea behind this film is quite promising. All the things you buy in the grocer store are conscious. They think people are gods and that Heaven is where you go when people buy you. They are about to find out, however, that life with humans is a hellish horror movie as they will find themselves cut up, baked alive, used to wipe butts, etc. A great idea.

It’s too bad nobody competent worked on the film.
Do you want to know what this film is like? Imagine six of the douchebag-iest teenagers you’ve ever met. These are the kind of retards for whom low-hanging fruit is unobtainable Shakespearian brilliance. Now imagine said douchebags deciding to take this idea and work it into the raunchiest thing they can come up with. Yep. Every sentence is flooded with hate-filled cusswords. Every “idea” – I hesitate even to use the word here – is about sex... but not sex in the sense that normal people know it. Imagine a gang of uneducated Mexicans standing on the street corner shouting obscenities at hookers.

There you have it. This was Sausage Party.

Oh look, he’s a hotdog. Did you know that means he’s shaped like a penis? Ha ha ha! Fuck dude, that’s fan-fucking-awesome-tastic. Fuck. Hey, she’s a bun. “Get it? And she’s sooooo fucking tight.” Fuck that's brilliant, you c*nt bitches! That’s fucking hilarious, motherfucker. Fuck, dude. That’s fucking comedy gold, fuckers.

We turned it off after five minutes.
You know, I can’t help but compare this to South Park. South Park the movie was genius. They were known for pushing the envelop on television. And when they got to do the movie (Bigger Longer and Uncut... a circumcision joke in the title that most people miss), everyone expected they would swear a lot. So they did. But they didn’t just swear. No, they turned the idea of swearing into a social statement. Their characters swore with purpose and with panache. It was clever. It was funny. You couldn’t help but laugh when they swore. Heck, you went home singing the “Uncle Fucker” song. Every swear word in South Park was chosen for a particular purpose.

Sausage Party is just a bunch of retard douchebags trying to say something their little minds think is cool. It is Mexican day labor swearing at you on the street. Pathetic.
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Friday, February 3, 2017

Film Friday: Superman v. Batman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

I finally got the chance to see Superman v. Batman. Yee haw. What a ride... to nowhere.

“Plot”

Ok. This has some twists and turns, so take notes if you need to. The guy who founded Facebook wants to kill Superman because somethingsomething God. Wonder Woman is in the movie. Facebook tricks Ben Affleck into fighting Superman but he loses, so Facebook sends a generic blobby muscle creature to do it. Superman, Affleck and Wonder Woman kill it, and Superman fakes his death.
Got it? Don’t worry if you don’t, you’ll have about an hour long pointless fight scene you can use as time to think about it. You might want to bring a book.

Who's A Bad Boy?

So what can I say? DC sure knows how not to put together a movie. To sum up this stink-burger, it is fake liberal “drama” randomly sprinkled between tremendous sound and fury signifying nothing.

Here’s the thing. The back half of the movie is designed for idiots who like shiny lights. The front half of the movie needs to offer some explanation for the back half, or people complain. So the front half needed to figure out why Batman and Superman would fight. The answer, originally offered, comes from modern liberalism. Modern liberals are conflicted cowards (except when attacking people “who deserve it”), ergo they think that all heroes must be conflicted types who see the faces of the people “they killed” when they sleep. And naturally, "they killed" anyone they didn't save.
Indeed, the story starts with the public turning against Superman because people died whenever he tried to save the planet. Ergo, Superman is the menace... not the thing that would have killed everyone. That makes no sense except to snowflakes, but Hollywood is packed with snowflakes and “strong” women... the greatest snowflakes of them all.

So Superman is bad.
Now we need to hate Batman, so he brands a couple child molesters and rapists and that shows that vigilantes are just sadistic criminals who target other criminals, making them worse than the people they stop... the standard Hollywood view. “No one is above the law, unless it’s for the right reasons, and stopping criminals is not the right reason!”

So Batman is bad.

Now we just... huh. Crap. This explanation didn’t get us to where we need to be. //scratches head Wait! I know! Lex Facebook send nastygrams to Batman and Superman making them think... You know what? Let’s just cut to the fighting.
There were only two things that interested me in this film. The first was that the bad Senator who tries to make Superman a villain is a Democrat from Kentucky. Why a Democrat? Democrats are never bad. Hmm. Then it hit me. This was Affleck’s dig at his estranged wife, Jennifer Garner, a Democrat from Kentucky. LOL! Niiiiiice!

The other thing is this. The initial discussion of how the public could come to hate Superman offered a promising social commentary on modern cynicism. The problem was, it never fleshed it out. To do this, the film should have been smaller with Superman and Batman in closer contact and coming to dislike the other. The story should be told through assistants who represent the two positions. The cynicism needs to grow: cynical logic being used... increasingly self-aggrandizing armchair quarterbacking... the rise of conspiracy theories believed through confirmation bias and growing paranoia... a growing acceptance of extreme solutions and positions, leading to violence... and then the arrival of opportunism – journalists first, then academics, comedians and finally politicians. Team Batman falls for this, as does the vocal public. Team Superman understands genuine goodness, real logic, actual facts, and the importance of good faith. The fight starts until they remind Batman that the majority of the public isn't this stupid and doesn't deserve to be lumped with the sh*tbirds.

Unfortunately, that would make for a strong, emotional film... not a shiny stupid one. Hollywood also doesn't understand what Superman needs to understand; good faith, logic and lack of cynicism are like a foreign language to them. So Facebook’s plan it is!

Thoughts?
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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Film Friday: Rogue One (2016)

Rogue One is a flawed, shallow movie with indifferent characters and barely the semblance of a plot. This movie is the See Spot Run of science-fiction. It makes The Force Awakens look like Moby Dick. But it was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it a lot while watching it, though I don’t really want to see it again. Ultimately, it doesn’t bode well for future Star Wars movies, however.

The Plot

The story opens with Imperial Weapon Designer Orson Krennic arriving in Scotland with a squad of troops to force genius scientist Galen Erso to come design the Death Star. Erso is played by Le Chiff from Casino Royale. Le Chiff buys time for his daughter Gin, er Jyn, to escape into the hands of Rebel “extremist” Forest Whitaker. Let’s call her GirlPower.
Fifteen years later, Rebel spy Cassian Andor, frees the now grown up GirlPower from prison on the desert moon Jedha when he’s searching for an escaped Imperial pilot who knows something about Le Chiff. Andor has a sarcastic Imperial droid he’s reprogrammed to help him. This is K-2SO, who says whatever he’s thinking and is quite fun, but doesn’t matter to the plot.
As Andor and GirlPower argue with Whitaker, the Empire test fires the Death Star at Jedha and blows up the planet in slow motion. Andor and GirlPower escape with the pilot along with this blind Chinese monk who is a total rip-off of Seraph from The Matrix II. Rebel command gives them the assignment to go “rescue” Le Chiff, which really means Andor is supposed to kill him. Le Chiff gets killed, but not by Andor, but he tells GirlPower where to find the plans to the Death Star first... Jamaica. They decide to attack the beach, against orders. There’s a battle. The story ends and they heavily sell the idea that this is seconds before the opening scene of Star Wars.
Gee, I hope you could follow all those twists and turns.

The Two Sides of This Film

Let’s start with the good. The film is fun the first time through. It is also visually stunning. It is a little dark and smudged at times, but overall it is very pretty when it gets going. The scenes on Scarif, on Jedha and anything Imperial are beautiful. The Rebel base on Yavin was exactly what it should have been. The CGI world of Eadu was kind of crappy Clone Wars-y, but it was forgivable because it was short.
The acting was passable. Though the fact I couldn’t remember anybody’s name was a bad sign. GirlPower was indifferent, but Andor was quite good. Krennic was good and had the only depth. Le Chiff was good, but was underused. It was nice in theory to see some of the Star Wars actors appear again in the combat scenes, but having a brain I knew exactly where they had taken these lines from the Star Wars attack on the Death Star and that felt cheap to me – they claim the lines are unused, but they are only unused in the Lucas butchered versions. The Vader scene lacked punch. The Leah scene was nicely done. The Grand Moff Tarkin stuff got his character wrong.

SarcBot was pretty awesome. He was probably my favorite character. Once again, Alan Tudyk did a phenomenal job of giving the perfect voice to a character; he’s perhaps the greatest voice actor of all time. The character itself was fun too. They did a great job of mixing machine and comic relief and little bits of awesome with him. It’s too bad his role was so small.
I really liked Seraph too, though he was in the wrong film. In fact, Seraph was a problem. Not only was Seraph stolen from The Matrix II, but he didn’t fit in this film’s world. Seraph had powers unseen before in Star Wars which nearly matched those of the Force. The felt wrong in this universe, which has always been presented as a realistic world except for the Force. This felt like a violation of the rules. Still, he was one of the most likeable characters and I liked watching him. Though, when the guy who shouldn’t be in your movie is the highlight, then you’ve done something wrong.
The plot existed. It was enough to make the film work given the special circumstances here, which is that we know the Star Wars world already and we know where this one would end, so it just needed to achieve a couple plot points. It could have used more plot, but it didn't technically need it. Still, it boggles the mind that a movie claimed to be “written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta” could be so underpowered. How do four people write a story and yet manage to come up with less plot than an initial impression? There is no character drama in this film. No character development. There are no twists, no turns, no clever or unexpected moments. The plot is literally a straight line: learn about plans and go get them. There are no subplots, no twists, no growth, no ebb and flow, and no hurdles.

This is what worries me most. Disney is planning to spin Star Wars into a million new films and this is a very bad start. This film has no plot, no depth and no characters you give a crap about. It makes the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise seem like high drama. There was nothing original or innovative or even clever in this film. It was pretty pabulum.
Even the attempts to give it meaning were crap. You had the father-daughter relationship that generated about three lines of pretend motivation and otherwise generated nothing in the way of emotion or interest. If you weren’t paying attention in the first five minutes, I doubt you would even have known that Le Chiff was GirlPower’s father. You had this fake new clichĂ© moment where everyone suddenly whines at Andor for whatever bad things he’s done on behalf of the resistance, only to have him give a passionless speech about how he lives with that everyday. Wahhh. For a guy whose character shows no emotions whatsoever, this was really an out-of-place speech. What’s more, why the other people he’s just saved and who have volunteered to go on this mission would lament the “bad things” he’s done is utter nonsense. This is New Liberalism not being able to grasp that heroes aren’t tortured souls.

If this becomes the formula then we are looking at some crap films ahead. We are looking at straight-line plots with indifferent heroes meant to echo the original Star Wars cast and who feel the need to give character-development speeches right before they blow something up for some reason you don’t care about. Not good.
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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Where Were You in ’87?

by ScottDS

Last year I jumped back 20 years but this time I’m doing 30 years again. I had forgotten how many classic movies were released in 1987. Of course, I was four years old and not aware of any of them, though several later became favorites, starting with the first two.

RoboCop – I still can’t believe Andrew prefers the second film to this one! For my money, Paul Verhoeven’s blood-soaked satire is a near-perfect movie. Volumes have been written about the film’s satire of 80s America and Verhoeven’s outsider perspective (not to mention the Jesus metaphors) but the film really works both as a corporate satire, but also as an old-fashioned western. What is RoboCop, if not a sheriff who’s come in to clean up the town? They don’t make them like this anymore: memorable characters, quotable dialogue, a heroic musical score, and at the heart of the film, a genuinely human story. The film was followed by two sequels, a cartoon, a low-budget TV series, a series of Canadian TV movies, and a forgettable remake. “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

Predator – One of the best “guy movies” ever made, Predator tells the story of Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer who leads a Special Forces team into the jungle on a rescue mission, only to find out their enemy is not of this Earth. The Predator (designed by the late Stan Winston) has become one of our iconic screen monsters. The cast, including Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke, and future filmmaker Shane Black, is an absolute blast. McTiernan would follow this up with Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October and Shane Black is currently working on a new Predator film with his Monster Squad collaborator Fred Dekker. “I ain't got time to bleed.” This leads me to…

The Monster Squad – A box-office failure upon its release, this charming film has since become a cult classic. Fred Dekker, who was later sent to director jail after RoboCop 3, co-wrote and directed this story of a group of young nerds who have to battle the old Universal monsters. A wonderful “backyard adventure” in the Spielberg style (but without the success!) and the origin of the fan favorite line “Wolfman’s got nards!” I haven’t seen it in years but it’s just a fun movie. It’s also pretty un-PC: at one point, Dracula is threatening a young girl and screams “You bitch!!” to her face. Go figure…

Fatal Attraction – A classic I watched for the first time just recently. What amazed me was how casual Michael Douglas and Glenn Close are about the whole thing, at least at the start. They’re both adults, his wife and daughter are out of town, so why not have some fun? Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Some, including Glenn Close, have speculated that her character suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). Aside from the lack of cell phones, this movie is also dated in another way: it was released back when Hollywood made actual adult dramas, for adults, with adults acting like adults and not overgrown children. This film was the second highest-grossing film of 1987. Can you imagine that now? “I’m not going to be ignored!”

Moonstruck – Another perfectly pleasant film. Cher stars as a Brooklyn accountant who falls for the brother of the guy to whom she’s engaged. Norman Jewison directs a script by acclaimed playwright John Patrick Shanley (best known to me for Joe vs. the Volcano and, of course, Congo). Yet another classic I watched relatively recently for the first time. I’ve noticed that the best romantic comedies make it look easy. It’s difficult to make any movie, but romantic comedies… I mean, it’s just people. And we can all relate to these stories, whether it’s crazy relatives or getting over a bad breakup, or simply falling for someone who will never feel the same way. This is another genre that Hollywood doesn’t do much nowadays and I think it’s a shame. “Snap out of it!”

Broadcast News – I haven’t seen all of James L. Brooks’ movies, but I found As Good As it Gets to be a bit overrated. Needless to say, Broadcast News is considered to be not only a classic romantic comedy but also an excellent look at the news gathering process. Holly Hunter is Jane, a news producer with no personal life. Albert Brooks is Aaron, a long-time friend of Jane’s and a reporter who sweats profusely on camera, and William Hurt is Tom, a tall and handsome reporter who may have some problems in the ethics department. Another movie just about people trying to have a normal life in a workplace that’s anything but that. “Wouldn't this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?”

The Untouchables – One of Brian De Palma’s most successful movies, this is one I have to keep on when it shows up on TV. Kevin Costner is Elliot Ness, a Prohibition agent who goes after Chicago gangster Al Capone, played by Robert De Niro. Yes, the filmmakers (including screenwriter David Mamet) played around with history a little bit but the final product is just so much fun. Sean Connery won an Oscar for playing Malone, an old Irish cop who partners with Ness. Not only do Andy Garcia and Charles Martin Smith get in on the fun, be on the lookout for Patricia Clarkson in one of her earliest roles as Ness’ wife. The highlight is probably the Union Station sequence, De Palma’s homage to Eisenstein. “They pull a knife, you pull a gun!”

Dragnet – This is a total guilty pleasure! A comedic remake of/sequel to the original TV series, Dan Aykroyd was born to play Joe Friday, who loves to explain police rules and regulations in his trademark staccato. Tom Hanks, back when he was a “comedic actor,” plays his mismatched partner, the oddly-named Pep Streebeck. They’re tasked with investigating a series of arson fires and it all ties in to a Los Angeles porno king (a lisping Dabney Coleman) and a phony preacher (a wonderfully-sneering Christopher Plummer). There is actually an interesting idea here: when it comes to public outrage, one side can’t exist without the other. But it doesn’t matter – this movie is just bizarre, with cult rituals, a virgin heroine, and some pretty funny gags. “Pagans!”

Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – Oh boy. Two words for you: Cannon Films, who purchased the Superman cinematic rights from the Salkinds, and then proceeded to slash the film’s budget at the last minute. In this one, Superman decides to rid the world of all nuclear weapons (breaking Tom Mankiewicz’ rule that Superman shouldn’t get involved in real-world events). Lex Luthor seeks to profit from this and ends up creating one of the worst screen villains ever: Nuclear Man. Most of the effects are laughable and the plot itself is borderline nonsensical (45 minutes were cut)… but Reeve gives it his all, Hackman is always fun to watch, and the music score – what survived, anyway – is pretty great. “Destroy Superman!”

Spaceballs – Not nearly as witty as The Producers or as political as Blazing Saddles, this movie is still hilarious. Even people who haven’t seen this film are probably familiar with “Use the Schwartz!” Sadly, this film is sort of a time capsule. John Candy and Rick Moranis were staples of my childhood and while Moranis has been retired from Hollywood for years and currently lives in New York City, Candy left us much too early. Making sequels after a long period of time rarely works but this is one instance where I’d be interested to see what they do, especially with Star Wars back in theaters for all eternity. “So, Lone Star, now you see that evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”

Planes, Trains & Automobiles – Speaking of John Candy, another staple of my childhood who left us much too soon was filmmaker John Hughes. Sixteen Candles might be my favorite Brat Pack film but this is my favorite Hughes film period. Steve Martin is just trying to make it home for Thanksgiving when he befriends a loudmouth shower curtain ring salesman (John Candy) and shenanigans ensue. When my brother and I were younger, we re-enacted the “You're going the wrong way!” scene for dad's new camcorder. (At the time, my brother was short enough to stand on the driver's seat without hitting the roof!) A sweet movie and a holiday classic. “Those aren’t pillows!”

Empire of the Sun – Steven Spielberg’s dramatization of J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel features a young Christian Bale as a boy separated from his parents after the Japanese invade Shanghai at the start of World War II. This is one of Spielberg’s masterpieces and it’s a shame it’s not as well-known as Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. Oddly, I tend to consider it alongside A.I. in that both films deal with parental separation and both leave me feeling uneasy by the end. (Is there a shrink in the house?!) Production values are top-notch, John Williams’ score is excellent, and look for John Malkovich, Joe Pantoliano, and a young Ben Stiller. “P-51! Cadillac of the sky!”

September – One of Woody Allen’s humorless melodramas – coming after 1978’s Interiors and followed by 1988’s Another Woman (the best of the three), September is a chamber piece and the plot is the usual Woody: upper-crust New Yorkers dealing with relationship drama and trying to make sense of a chaotic universe. The production history is more interesting: Woody cast the film, re-cast one role just a few weeks into production, finished the film, decided it didn’t work… then re-cast it and filmed it again! “It's hell getting’ older. Especially when you feel 21 inside.”

Lethal Weapon – Richard Donner’s film more or less reinvented the buddy cop movie. Mel Gibson and Danny Glover have excellent chemistry as Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh: Riggs is depressed and suicidal while Murtaugh is a normal family man dealing with turning 50. While investigating the death of a young woman, they discover a heroine smuggling ring run by Vietnam War-era mercenaries. The movie could’ve been a forgettable potboiler but Gibson and Glover elevate the material, the villains are genuinely menacing, and Donner’s at the height of his directorial powers. This film was followed by three sequels, a spoof (Loaded Weapon, which is actually pretty funny), and is currently a TV series on Fox. “I’m too old for this shit!”

Also: Adventures in Babysitting, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Big Easy, Can’t Buy Me Love, Death Wish 4, Dirty Dancing, Evil Dead II, Good Morning, Vietnam, Hamburger Hill, Hellraiser, Innerspace, Ishtar, Jaws: The Revenge, The Last Emperor, Less Than Zero, The Living Daylights, The Lost Boys, Masters of the Universe, The Miami Connection, Near Dark, No Way Out, The Princess Bride, Prince of Darkness, Raising Arizona, Revenge of the Nerds II, The Running Man, The Secret of My Success, Stakeout, Three Men and a Baby, Three O’Clock High, Throw Mama from the Train, Tin Men, Wall Street, and The Witches of Eastwick.
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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Monsterpiece Theater: The Count Goes Just Plain Weird

by Rustbelt

By the 1990’s, bad was cool. (See e.g. nWo, ECW, Austin 3:16) Anything that wasn’t extreme was dull. (See e.g. any Mountain Dew commercial) The Macarena ruled and stoners determined culture. How did this affect vampires? Well, just when it seemed as though filmmakers had finally realized that Dracula is meant to be scary, they go pants-crapping crazy and make the story utterly unrecognizable. Blood-drinking became cool. Any connection between Christian faith warding off vampires was deemed unhip. And unless you were an uber-sexy teenager/twentysomething, it was wrong to fight vampires because you were ruining all the fun. I blame this all on Jess Whedon.

But before that annoying hipster got his turn, it was a member of the Movie Brats who turned vampire lore on its head. To get to the root of this, we’re going to have to go back a few decades.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (American Zoetrope, 1992)

Probably the most famous play version of Dracula is the 1924 Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderson adaptation. Tod Browning relied heavily on it when filing his classic version starring Bela Lugosi for Universal in 1931. Over forty-five years later, the play reopened on Broadway with Frank Langella in the lead. This, of course led to the 1979 film starring Langella. However, the producers weren’t the only ones inspired by the play to make a bizarre new film version.

During the show’s run, screenwriter James V. Hart decided to take in the performance. Hart later recalled that on the night he was in the audience, (and apparently during the scene where the Count bites Lucy), he heard a woman in front of him mutter that, “she’d rather spend one night with Dracula dead than the rest of her life with her husband alive.” Hart went back and read the book. Interpreting virtually everything in the novel as a sexual metaphor for something, he eventually wrote a rough screenplay for his own adaptation. Years later, in 1989, budding Hollywood starlet Winona Ryder got a copy of the script and took it to Francis Ford Coppola -- the story goes that she was shocked that he listened to her since she had pulled out of the The Godfather Part III. Coppola liked what he read and decided to make his take on Dracula with one particular word in mind: weird.

Horror or Romance, You Make the Call

Bram Stoker’s Dracula starts off with something that never happens in the book: Count Dracula (Gary Oldman) claiming that he is Vlad the Impaler. He is shown fighting the Turks in…muscle armor? Then, after impaling his foes (recalling the Impaler’s real-life ‘forest of the impaled’), he learns the terrible news that his wife committed suicide when she was tricked into thinking he died in battle. In a chapel, he is told that her soul is damned for committing suicide and in a rage renounces God and declares himself blood thirsty, setting him on the path to becoming a vampire.
Note: Vlad the Impaler’s first wife did, in fact, throw herself from the battlements of Castle Poenari. The reason is unknown, but it’s inferred that because the castle was being besieged by the Turks, she killed herself out of despair.

The film then follows a similar plot to the Universal version, with Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reaves) traveling to Transylvania... and the weird is on. Everything is done to excess (cough, cough Peter Jackson). The ‘peasants’ in the coach seem dressed for Mardi Gras; the armor-clad coach driver looks like an enemy out of the Castlevania franchise; and when Harker encounters the Brides - one of whom has Medusa’s head snakes - it quickly becomes a scene out of Caligula.
The Count arrives in England and the script morphs from an LSD-fueled version of the Universal movie, to a hybrid of the Palance and Langella versions done in the Kabuki style. (Seriously! That’s what half the costumes in this movie were based on!) Dracula recognizes Mina (Winona Ryder) as his wife Elizabeta reincarnated and begins courting while feeding on her friend, Lucy. A near-insane Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) and the uptight vampire hunters begin to investigate.
Finally, after Lucy (Sadie Frost) and Mina have deep sexual awakenings after being bitten by the Count, the hunters chase Dracula to his castle where Mina turns on the group and nearly helps the Count escape. She only stabs and decapitates him as an act of mercy. Whew!
Dracula: Gary Oldman

I have a lot of issues with this version of the Count, though they really can’t be blamed on the actor. Coppola wanted everything to be as over-the-top as possible. This included giving Dracula a red evening gown complete with twenty-foot train and a Krusty the Klown style hairdo. The appearance is more laughable than frightening.
It improves somewhat in London, as the Count dresses like a nobleman. However, he wears blue-tinted John Lennon-esque glasses and cries purple tears. [insert your Prince joke here] I can’t help but wonder if Coppola was actually making fun of the character by this point.
Anyway, Gary Oldman is one of those rare actors who can almost seamlessly become different characters and make them believable. Here, he does what is asked of him: he uses a deep Romanian accent and acts creepy as the old Count in the castle. After drinking the blood of the crew on the Demeter makes him younger, he switches gears to sex-starved stalker, albeit one with a heart. I say this because as much as he wants to make Mina a vampire to be with him forever, he doesn’t want to damn her. However, she falls in love with him because…?

Oh, Let’s Just Say It: Twilight for Adults

Why does Mina love Dracula? Because he took her out? Because he’s a gentleman and won’t bite her? Does he sparkle in sunlight? Will he introduce her to the family? Will he take her to the prom? (Well they do dance.) Oh, let’s just say it: this is Twilight for Adults!
This just hit me in the course of writing this article: the Count and Mina in this movie are Edward and Bella! He loves her, but won’t bite her because it’s terrible to be a vampire. She loves him and wants him to bite her so they can be together forever. How precious. Maybe he’ll also compose a lullaby on the piano for her.

Even more amazing, Mina is actually more obnoxious than Bella. As I mentioned above, she turns on the group in the end. She warns the Count of their plans, tries to bite Van Helsing, uses vampire powers to help Dracula get to the safety of the castle, and then pulls a gun on her husband to keep him from killing the Count. Turncoat, I say! Traitor! Witch! Benedict Arnold!
How to Make Bram Stoker Roll Over in the Grave (Which Would be a Feat, Since he was Cremated)

Once again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual liberator from traditional mores. I could rehash all of that, but I covered what I have to say on that subject in my article on the Palance and Langella versions. So let me detail other things I couldn’t stand:

- Even Coppola has admitted he doesn’t like the decision to cast Keanu Reeves. He claims the studio forced it on him. (He wanted Johnny Depp.) Reeves is wooden, uninteresting, and turns in one of the worst English accents of all time. Only three years removed from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you can’t help but wonder when he’ll say ‘whoa.’ BTW, Ryder is almost as bad with her accent.
- Feminism or non-feminism? Coppola deliberately focused the script on Mina and Lucy. Both constantly undermine the male characters. Mina even berates Dracula for thinking the cinematograph is a scientific achievement, and claims Marie Curie would scoff at it. (Screw you, Edison!) Plus, both spend a good deal of the film sizing up the men as per their sexual abilities. (Does Lucy have any lines that can’t be interpreted as innuendo?) And, of course, both choose Drac as their ultimate dude because he shows them a good roll in ze hay. Is that really feminism? You know, I can’t tell anymore.
- Finally come the costumes. Yes, I know this movie won Oscars for costume and makeup, but the Academy also gave ‘Best Picture’ one year to ‘Shakespeare in Love.’ So much for credibility. It’s all so over-the-top, it’s ridiculous. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was watching. Like I said above, most of the costumes are based on Kabuki dresses. Everything else seems to be Victorian garb on steroids. (The ‘muscle armor,’ BTW, is completely made up.) Exactly how you make a horror movie where everyone dresses like clowns and ringmasters is beyond me.
Obligatory Find the Good

All right, except for Gary Oldman, I’ve been really hard on this film. (And honestly, I think he saves it from being a total wash.) However, this film has many defenders and I can see why. The sets are highly detailed, crafted, and well-lit. But art alone can’t make a movie. You still need story and character. Christopher Lee pointed out the scene where Oldman licks the blood off Harker’s razor and has a moment of ecstasy as he swallows it. He called that a nice addition and I agree. To that end, here are some good things I found in the script.

- The hunters are all here. This is the first movie to show all of the vampire hunters- Dr. Seward (Richard E. Grant), who proposed to Lucy, but was turned down, Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes), Lucy’s fiancĂ©, and Arthur’s Texan adventurer friend, Qunicey P. Morris (Billy Campbell). Most movies reduce the group to one or two. It’s nice to see them all together, even if they are portrayed as inferior males. On that note, Anthony Hopkins is no Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. He was deliberately channeling his Hannibal Lector character for the role.

- There’s homage to the author. While walking through London, Mina passes an ad on a placard for the Lyceum Theater, where Bram Stoker worked as business manager. The placard further advertises Sir Henry Irving in Hamlet can also be seen. Irving made his reputation playing the Prince of Denmark.

- There’s plenty of actual dialogue in the film. Dracula, Harker, and Van Helsing use many lines from the novel in the film, particularly in the scenes leading up to, and taking place in, Castle Dracula. Harker quotes from the journal entries in the novel several times. It’s only when the plot changes into Twilight and Lucy’s nymphomania appears that Stoker’s words become lost.
- Tom Waits does the most outrageous performance as Renfield since Dwight Frye in 1931. He’s eccentric, unpredictable, and just plain crazy; a good friend one moment; a homicidal maniac the next. Let me amend what I said before: Oldman and Waits save the movie from being a total wash.

- And, yeah, I’ll admit: I like “Love Song for a Vampire.”
The Difference Between a Lost Chapter and a Lost Cause

In 1914, two years after Bram’s death, Florence Stoker published something odd: a book of short stories called Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories. It’s widely believed that the title story is an excised chapter of Dracula. It goes like this:
An unnamed Englishman (presumably Harker), arrives in Munich on Walpurgis Night. Although warned not to go out, the Englishman walks out to an abandoned ‘unholy village.’ He finds a massive tomb with an iron stake driven through it. An inscription reads, “The Dead Travel Fast.” A hailstorm forces him into the tomb’s doorway and he accidentally opens it. Lightning reveals a beautiful sleeping woman inside. Just then, thunder frightens him away and another bolt hits the spike, destroying the tomb as the woman screams. Hours later, the man wakes with a ferocious-looking wolf licking his neck. A group of soldiers arrive, shoo off the wolf, and take the Englishman back to the inn. It’s later revealed that the man’s eventual host, Dracula, sent a warning to the inn to look after the man.

No one really knows why the story was removed from the novel. Theories range from the style (it’s not certain who the narrator is), to the length of the novel, to the scene just not fitting into the narrative. The evidence that it may be a removed first chapter comes from the original manuscript now held at the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia. Lines scratched out in the manuscript seem to refer to events in Dracula’s Guest. Also, nearly all the chapters numbers are scratched out and subtracted by one. The lack of information about this piece only adds to its mystery.

I think it was a good choice to remove it. First, it allows Harker’s experiences to build as we follow his journey across Eastern Europe. And second, it can be inferred that the experience should better prepare Harker for his experiences in Transylvania. If he went through that and behaves the way he does in the novel, he’d actually look rather stupid dismissing every superstition instead of carefully investigating them.
But sometimes family isn’t your friend. In 2009, Dacre Stoker, professional gym teacher and great-grand-nephew of Bram, co-authored a book called Dracula the Un-Dead. In a case like this, you’d hope that talent might be passed through a family bloodline. Alas, this is not the case.

I won’t bother with a full synopsis. Suffice to say, the original group of vampire hunters has drifted apart by 1912. They’re all recluses or addicts of some kind. Anyway, the vampire Elizabeth Bathory (a real-life Hungarian countess who had village girls killed so she could bathe in their blood, which she believed would cause her to retain her youth), has arrived in London and is causing trouble. Quincey Harker (Jonathan and Mina’s son), gets help from a famous actor named Basarab (Dracula in disguise), and they attempt to find Bathory and destroy her.

This isn’t written as a novel; it’s written as an attempted screenplay pitch. The book’s last chapters move and climax like a Die Hard film. Dracula takes over the role of superhero as he and Bathory fight X-Men-style. It’s also revealed that the Count and Mina were great lovers and that the group misidentified the Count as the bad guy the first time around. And, oh, yeah: everyone gets killed along the way.

Dacre Stoker has claimed the book was an attempt for the Stoker estate to reclaim the property. I, for one, hope they’re kept as far away from it as possible.
It Seems the Dawn has Arrived

How time flies. Well, everyone, it’s been a nice few weeks this October. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discussing the many faces of the vampire king with you. And like Gene Wilder told Mel Brooks on the set of Young Frankenstein just after the last day of filming wrapped, “I’m so happy. I don’t want to leave Transylvania.” Unfortunately, the time has come. When this is posted, Halloween will be over. Remember how the ghosts and ghouls in the Night on Bald Mountain piece from Fantasia return to their graves as sunlight shines through the clouds to the ringing of the angelus bell? Well, now, the vampires, too, must return to their tombs.

This year’s series of Monsterpiece Theater is complete. But it’s just a chapter. There’s always room for more.

“I trust your journey has been a happy one…and that you [enjoyed] your stay in my beautiful land. Your Friend, D.”
Bonus!

Sir Christopher Frayling’s “Nightmare! The Birth of Victorian Horror: Dracula”
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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Guest Review: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

by Jason

Roland Emmerich, just give it up. You’re done. D-O-N-E. You’ve strip-mined disaster movies of everything they’ve got. You literally have nowhere else to go unless you blow up a whole galaxy. Then again, that might have been a better idea for a film than what we ultimately ended up with.

The Plot

It’s Independence Day all over again. Another alien ship shows up, lots of cities go boom, we fight back but our military is no match for them, we go to Area 51, we hatch a plan to get through the aliens’ defenses, an important character sacrifices himself to help beat the aliens, we win, main characters gather in the desert to celebrate the victory, roll credits. Now imagine all that done half-assed, and you have Independence Day: Resurgence.
The Good

Okay, snark aside, there are some good ideas in this movie. The film’s first act reveals that the war against the aliens started in the first film actually continued for a while in certain areas such as Africa, with a warlord who waged a guerilla war against some of them for a long time. We also learn that David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has been working with the world’s governments to use alien technology captured from the first invasion to help strengthen the planet’s defenses to the point where they can build a functioning moonbase and fighter planes that can fly in space. Meanwhile, former President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), long bearded and apparently ailing, senses a new ship of aliens is approaching as a side effect of having telepathically linked to them in the first movie. The telepathic warning also reaches a comatose Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner), who wakes up from twenty years after his encounter with the alien in the Area 51 lab and starts writing weird alien symbols all over the wall.
The Bad

Unfortunately, Emmerich doesn’t develop these ideas into anything compelling, mostly because the movie gets swallowed up in rehashing the first movie, only Resurgence doesn’t even do that well. In the first film, we got treated to big city-sized flying saucers shooting down beams that blow away whole cities. Here, we just get another mothership that only wrecks havoc because it’s surrounded by a gravity field that lifts up whole cities as it descends to the planet and then drops them back across the planet. I couldn’t tell whether the aliens were doing this on purpose or if it was just a byproduct of their ship’s arrival. And humanity’s air counterattack against the aliens? Boring and a mess. It’s like Emmerich forgot how to shoot an aerial dogfight scene. I could follow the air battles in the first movie much better.

The movie does introduce some new characters plus new actors that play grown-up roles of two kids from the first movie, but with the exception of Whitmore’s daughter, they’re all bores. Most of the original cast does return, even an ailing Robert Loggia (R.I.P.) who gets a quick cameo at a presidential ceremony in his old role as General Grey, and they pretty much outshine the newbies. There’s a female president played by Sela Ward who makes one big dumb mistake in the course of the film and is later killed by the aliens. That’s pretty much her contribution. Jeff Goldblum is still Jeff Goldblum, just a little older and grayer. If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen all the “Goldblumisms” that are worth seeing. Meanwhile, Judd Hirsch as Goldblum’s dad is back and he ends up with a subplot so irrelevant it’s shocking that it got past Emmerich. After he survives a tidal wave brought on by the alien ship’s arrival, he dusts himself off, escorts a bus of children through the aftermath of the alien invasion to Area 51…and that’s it! On the other hand, this movie loves Brent Spiner’s Dr. Okun, so if you liked his short role in the first flick, be prepared to have lots more Okun served up in the sequel!

As an aside, the movie dumped Margaret Colin’s Constance Spano (David Levinson’s ex) even though the actress is still very much active and seemed from what I can tell ready to reprise the role. Why? Let’s see. Colin is currently 58 years old, while the actress that plays the new female character that partners with David is 45. Yeah, I think we can draw the expected conclusion here and move on.
How the Aliens Lose

I have to reserve some special scorn for how the human race fights the aliens in this movie. In the first, Goldblum and Smith fly up to the mothership and upload a virus that shuts down the deflector shields on the alien craft and allow the military to take them down. Simple, easy to follow, even if the fact that Goldblum’s laptop can successfully interface with an alien computer left more than a few moviegoers rolling their eyes.

In Resurgence, the strategy is to lure the aliens’ queen out of the mothership so they can kill it, and without the queen, the mothership will stop its attack on Earth and just leave. That’s it. The climax is basically a battle between a giant alien queen who’s the size of a Transformer plus some of her escort fighters. Once she’s dead, the aliens suddenly stop as if they get a mental blue screen of death, pick up, and go. Never mind that their mothership is still fully functional, they just can’t do the job any more. Queen dead, they go bye-bye. I don’t know if I have the words to communicate how both stupid and underwhelming this is.
Time to Hang It Up, Roland

Whatever filmmaking talent Roland Emmerich still possesses ought to go to other kinds of films, because this movie shows he’s completely out of gas when it comes to disaster and mayhem. Actually, I’d say this movie’s failure is a greater symptom of audience fatigue for these kinds of movies as a whole.

When the first Independence Day came out, movie audiences of the time had not seen special effects movies that depicted mass destruction of landmarks and cities, certainly not so realistically. You’d have to go back decades to flicks like War of the Worlds and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. Usually, mass destruction was a threat that movie heroes could stop in the nick of the time. So when Independence Day depicted an epic war between humanity and an invading alien race, it wasn’t a shock that people flocked to see it.

Now Emmerich has essentially given us the same movie twenty years later and it’s a snoozer. Why? Because mass destruction has been done to death. The Transformers movies have done it. The Marvel movies have done it. The DC movies have done it. Emmerich himself has done it twice, in The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. There’s only so many ways you blow up city streets, buildings and skyscrapers. I’d be shocked if by now Industrial Light and Magic doesn’t have a “blow up a city” computer program to click on demand.

Final Verdict

The first Independence Day was lightning in a bottle. It was a huge success because of its basic alien invasion plot, effects that (largely) still hold up, and a cast that included a few ab-libbers to add some chuckles to the film (notably Hirsch, Smith and Goldblum). But it’s clear all the inspiration was used up for the first film. It’s like in that 20 year gap between films, Emmerich forgot how to put together a cohesive story, so he just rehashed the first one but made it less fun, less understandable and much more underwhelming. If Emmerich truly wanted to make a sequel, he should have done it years ago, and if the sequel hook from this film suggests the kind of film he wanted to build up to, a “let’s go into space and take the fight to the aliens,” thing, there was no reason he couldn’t have done that story then or even now.

Celebrate your Independence Day from this film!
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